Captain Logan Brandt is a senior instructor in the Department of Physics at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Dr. A. Bradley Potter is the Stanton Visiting Scientist at the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies in the Department of Political Science at the U.S. Air Force Academy and participated in the Bridging the Gap New Era Workshop in 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it clear – our students need a blend of science and policy literacy. Transnational challenges with technical dimensions are increasingly common. Pandemic disease, climate change, artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and other issues touching our politics and society demand fluencies that no single academic department houses. So, how might educators prepare students for this complex world?
Scholars in the mid-20th century recognized interdisciplinary needs in harnessing nuclear weapons. A few decades later, others did the same to address environmental issues. These efforts led to new or reformed think tanks, graduate education programs, and research centers. But today we face even more diverse interdisciplinary issues. Now is the time to build on earlier successes, especially expanding them from graduate students to undergraduates. To better bridge the gap between scholarship and policy we must increasingly bridge the gap between STEM and the social sciences in our curriculum, classrooms, and research.
One program at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) is modeling how such education might take place. Through its Nuclear Weapons and Strategy (NWS) minor, the Academy provides interdisciplinary education tackling a topic with profound political, strategic, and scientific elements. Nuclear issues certainly enjoy a long history in higher education. But as a physicist and political scientist teaching and refining this curriculum, tips and tricks from our experience may assist educators bridging the science-policy divide in other substantive arenas.
Curriculum Strategies and Teaching Tactics
USAFA has a unique interest in developing leaders fluent in the technical, strategic, and political aspects of a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent. To address this need, several academic departments banded together to develop the NWS minor. The interdisciplinary minor requires cadets to demonstrate more than proficiencies in physics, political science, chemistry, military strategy, or history; instead, cadets must bring these fields together to uncover how they inform one another, create opportunities, and illuminate risks.
Starting new interdisciplinary majors is difficult for most colleges and universities due to budgetary, organizational, and scholastic concerns. However, minors offer an enticing alternative to bridge social and hard sciences. Like USAFA, some undergraduate institutions have interdisciplinary programs integrating STEM and social sciences geared toward topics in regional and international studies, public health, or environmental policy. All offer models for expanding curriculums into emerging, hitherto unaddressed, techno-political issues. Interdisciplinary minors cultivated by faculty bring intentionality to curriculum design, allowing instructors to think about how courses connect, identify cross-course themes, and ensure students realize coherent learning objectives.
Using only existing faculty resources and coordination in course design, the NWS minor spans the hard and social science divide in at least three ways. First, cadets take five courses, typically three from STEM fields dealing with nuclear physics and its applications and two from social science fields addressing American foreign policy and strategy. Second, while each course hews to its disciplinary perspective, all work to bring together information from other fields. For instance, one of the social science courses considers the strategic implications of technical advances in missile accuracy. Third, cadets majoring in STEM and social science fields benefit from interacting with one another, sharing disciplinary perspectives and forming a cohesive cohort with expertise spanning fields. These benefits frame the value of interdisciplinary minors. Below, we identify several best practices for implementing an interdisciplinary minor.
A curriculum bridging STEM and social sciences is best when it moves beyond the theoretical and into the practical. To this end, the NWS minor is built around a hands-on, “problem–based” curriculum focused on addressing a large-scale societal challenge with significant technical dimensions. Problem-based programs rely on progressive layers of knowledge application. They often begin with the scientific and political fundamentals underlying policy problems. Students progressively apply these fundamentals to increasingly complex scenarios, tackling interdisciplinary phenomena in science, engineering, and ultimately society and politics. At each stage, students learn to engage with more multifaceted issues while revealing each layer’s dependance on core concepts. Cultivating this progression guides curriculum cohesiveness.
In the NWS minor, initial coursework builds on USAFA’s introductory calculus and physics courses in a “principles of nuclear science” class designed to give cadets fluency in fundamental nuclear physics. Courses on weapons engineering and effects then take an applied science approach. The former explores weapons design and technical requirements for proliferation while the latter examines the implications of nuclear detonations like the health ramifications of radiation exposure. Finally, a “nuclear strategy and policy” course considers the widest effects of nuclear weapons on politics and society. It challenges cadets to think about how scientific realities shape decisions of military and civilian leaders. For example, we expect students to contemplate how technical constraints may limit decisionmakers’ options. Ultimately, each course gradually moves from disciplinary fundamentals to problem-oriented applications.
Decisionmakers often lack adequate technical understanding for making informed policy decisions on emerging challenges. They also frequently overlook the most important questions to ask technical experts. Science communication skills are ultimately critical to both producers and consumers of technical data. The NWS minor challenges our cadets to think about communication differently than they would in only a lab or political science course by stressing best practices for communicating STEM information to decisionmakers.
For example, we instruct cadets to share their scientific bottom-line up front, explain why their audience should care, and offer only relevant supporting data. This often means translating technical information into specific social, political, or economic language, a skill rarely taught in traditional science classrooms. Meanwhile, in our political science classes, we challenge cadets to ask research questions informed by their basic scientific knowledge, looking for seams where policymakers may need the most support. With exposure to both social science and technical education, cadets learn to better communicate the most practical technical context and policy options to decisionmakers.
Questions of Truth
Bridging STEM and social science fields necessarily requires reflecting on how each goes about generating and applying knowledge. Across all NWS minor courses, we center attention on the concept of “truth” and how we know it. This is especially important today when ““truth decay” infects political deliberations and obfuscates scientific expertise. We work with cadets to think in practical terms about how they know what they know about the world. Consequently, we talk about causation, context, contingency, and interpretation, blending knowledge traditions from across disciplines to explore various lenses for uncovering truth insofar as we can know it. These discussions empower cadets to navigate today’s difficult informational environment by recognizing more and less legitimate challenges to expert knowledge, better consuming technical and non-technical analysis, appreciating the potential and limits of disciplinary insights, and applying all of this to policymaking.
In the NWS minor, STEM courses provide an opportunity to discuss positivism and the scientific method. Social science courses build on this discussion, using similar language to extend positivism to studying political phenomena while also introducing interpretivist and constructivist approaches. For example, in the strategy and policy course, cadets consider how interpretations of historical facts may be informed by theories of international politics, a historian’s contextual moment, or prevailing trends in the social sciences. This mode of thinking juxtaposes with their fundamental nuclear physics course where common standards for measurement and theory building generally prevail. In the end, cadets are better positioned to reflect on how questions of “truth” influence leaders considering policy options.
In-Class Analytical Activities
In line with the principle of progressive layers of knowledge in curriculum, we encourage students to do more than recall scientific or political facts in a vacuum, we expect them to analyze, synthesize, and apply course materials. For example, in our core “strategy and policy course,” we host an in-class debate on the most pressing nuclear threats. Groups of cadets each read a different article, present its findings, make the case for why the article’s issue is especially dangerous, and propose concrete policy interventions targeting each threat’s causal logic. As part of this exercise, we encourage students to draw on their technical skills, pointing out how understanding the science of the issue leads to deeper insight about its importance and potential policy interventions. Meanwhile, in the “principles of nuclear science” course, we begin each class with a discussion about current or historical events related to nuclear technology, such as the Fukushima disaster. These activities helps students make practical connections between technical and political phenomena and ties together diverse coursework.
The NWS minor relies heavily on guests, especially from the U.S. national labs, to help bridge science and policy. Technical experts and policymakers who enjoy fluency in both arenas are the most effective. Visitors serve two important functions. First, they offer models for how to seamlessly blend STEM and social scientific knowledge. A good guest navigates both with ease, demonstrating that such mastery is possible. Second, they offer substantive insights at the intersection of disciplines, helping our cadets think about future research topics or the implications of their laboratory exercises. Outside experts may be easier to book after the normalization of virtual guest lectures following COVID-19.
In interdisciplinary programs, many non-STEM students may be hesitant to take STEM courses for fear of adversely affecting their GPAs. To help counter this concern, providing a balance between qualitative and quantitative assignments generally keeps such students in the program. Such a point balance also helps center interdisciplinary skills emphasized throughout the NWS minor. For instance, groups of cadets are required to analyze a nuclear reactor accident based on principles from STEM courses and present their findings to a mock “decisionmaker.” This provides non-STEM students a chance to flex their writing skills while earning points in a STEM course. Additionally, it enables interaction between STEM and non-STEM students, exposing the relative strengths of each group and the gap that the program is designed to bridge.
Disciplinary boundaries exist for a reason. They bound epistemological communities, establish standards for research, and professionalize fields. However, challenges facing our students in the 21st century do not respect disciplinary boundaries. Now is the time to creatively blend social and hard sciences to equip our students to tackle the future’s big questions. We hope the suggestions above inspire other scholars looking to launch interdisciplinary programs and courses in their home institutions. We are eager to see this conversation continue in these pages, and we are excited to learn from others spanning the STEM-social science divide to better bridge the scholarship-policy gap.
The views and opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the Department of Defense or the United States Air Force Academy.
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